Distinguished Americans, From A To Z

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In recent years professional historians have been turning more and more to the study of society and the forces that shape it rather than to the study of individuals. Demographers and econometricians are in great demand in university history departments, and the computer has become the “in” tool of researchers. People are of concern to these historians only in the mass. When they examine census data, for example, they are looking for information about geographical and economic mobility, ethnic origins, the size of families, and the ages at which people marry—almost everything, it seems, except the specific persons that the data actually represent. Put differently, they are interested in people but not in unusual people. They seek to describe the “underside” of history, to analyze the behavior and influence of crowds, to re-create the life patterns of the inarticulate millions of ordinary persons who, unaware of their future importance, left no self-conscious records of their existence: black slaves, poor immigrants, dirt farmers, and industrial workers. Stephan Thernstrom, in his prize-winning investigation of geographical and social mobility, The Other Bostonians (1973), studies the lives of thousands of people (and argues plausibly that his conclusions apply to millions more) without mentioning a single one of them by name. The Great Man theory of history seems hopelessly old-fashioned and romantic—one associates it with Emerson and Carlyle—and also, today, elitist in every sense of the word. The Great Man theory of history?

The development of computers has been the direct cause of the recent explosion of interest in this kind of history because computers make it possible for historians to manipulate with relative ease enormous masses of information that their predecessors could not conceivably have assimilated. But this new history is also a reflection of a broad change that has been going on for a century or more in every aspect of life: the shift from the self-reliant individual who sees himself as more or less capable of determining his own fate to our present emphasis on organizations and cooperative activity. In business the small operator has given way to the giant corporation, and within the corporation, the Robber Baron to the Organization Man. In science the lone investigator with his Bunsen burner and his test tubes has been replaced by the research team. Explorers like Columbus with his three tiny caravels and Lewis and Clark with their handful of companions have been superseded by NASA . In politics the charismatic statesman moving the electorate with colorful oratory has died out, his place occupied by the careful political manager with his private pollsters and his crew of speech writers. We speak less and less of the President, more and more of the White House.

Thoughts such as these passed through my mind one afternoon in the spring of 1973 after I had received a telephone call from Professor Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., asking me if I would allow him to suggest my name as editor of the Dictionary of American Biography . Chandler, a professor at the Harvard Business School, is a member of the American Council of Learned Societies’ advisory board supervising the Dictionary , which is known throughout the profession as the DAB . Although Chandler has written biographies of the pioneer business analyst Henry Varnum Poor and of the industrialist Pierre S. Du Pont, the major thrust of his research has been the study of the organizational structure of big business. I had not known of his connection with the DAB , and as I thought about our conversation I realized that I had been somewhat surprised by his interest in it. My mind having turned in this direction, it also occurred to me that my own historical work had been influenced by the trend I have just described. Although I had written several biographies and even a book about biography (which I presume was the reason Chandler had thought of me as a possible DAB editor), I had more recently done a book on the United States in the 1880’s, the chief theme of which was the development in that period of large organizations and of group activities in nearly every walk of life; and I was currently engaged in a rather ambitious effort to examine the Great Depression of the 1930’s from the comparative point of view, a project that had little to do with individuals. Nevertheless I quickly decided that I was indeed interested. After a series of talks with Frederick Burkhardt, who is currently the president of the ACLS , and with both Walter Muir Whitehall, chairman of the advisory board, and Charles Scribner, who publishes the DAB , I was offered the editorship and accepted it eagerly.